“Last Quarter of the Moon”: Evenki Odyssey Captured in Chinese Novel Set in the Greater Khingan Mountains

My translation of Chi Zijian’s Last Quarter of the Moon (额尔古纳河右岸) can be ordered — e-book, hard cover and paperback — online at various places, including Amazon. Read the opening for free here (click on the cover), or the author’s Afterword.

For information on other editions, see: Dutch (Het laatste kwartier van de maan), French,  Italian (Ultimo quarto di Luna), Japanese (アルグン川の右岸), Spanish (A la orilla derecha del Río Argún ), and Turkish. 

If you’d like to peruse a book review, choose your language: ChineseEnglish, French, or Spanish. There’s also an in-depth interview with me about the novel in Chinese (中文采访).

Narrated in the first person by the aged wife of the last chieftain of an Evenki clan, the Right Bank of the Argun—as it is dubbed in Chinese — is a moving tale of the decline of reindeer-herding nomads in the sparsely populated, richly forested mountains that border on Russia.

At the end of the twentieth century an old woman sits among the birch trees and thinks back over her life, her loves, and the joys and tragedies that have befallen her family and her people. She is a member of the Evenki tribe who wander the remote forests of northeastern China with their herds of reindeer, living in close sympathy with nature at its most beautiful and cruel.

Over the last three centuries, three waves of outsiders have encroached upon the Evenki’s isolated way of life: the Russians, whose warring and plundering eventually pushed the Evenki down from Siberia across to the southern (“right”) bank of the Argun River, the tributary of the Amur that defines the Sino-Russian border; the Japanese, who forcibly recruit their men into the ranks of the Manchukuo Army; and the Han Chinese of the People’s Republic, who fell the forests that are crucial to the survival of reindeer, outlaw hunting, and eventually coerce the Evenki to leave the mountains for life in a “civilized” permanent settlement.

For an academic study of the ideologies behind the government’s official policy of resettling the Evenki—and an in-depth look at the psychological impact of divorcing them from their “reindeer lifeworld”— see Forced Relocation amongst the Reindeer Evenki of Inner Mongolia.

Visit Northern Hunting Culture for marvelous pictures of the Aoluguya Evenki, their lifestyle and handicrafts.

For a fascinating look at the etymology of names for rivers, mountains and forests in their homeland on either side of the Sino-Russian border, see Evenki Place Names behind the Hànzì.

Extract: “Back Quarters at Number 7” by Manchu Writer Ye Guangqin

Pathlight 2014 SpringIn Back Quarters at Number 7, Ye Guangqin recreates what it was like growing up Manchu in a traditional Beijing hutong during the early years of the New China. Once part of a prince’s stately residence, the Big Courtyard now belongs to the masses and serves as a venue for collective activities such as neighborhood meetings, or rehearsals for the Rice-Planting Dance performed on National Day.

Traditionally, at the very rear of a Qing Dynasty prince’s mansion one finds a two-floor structure that functioned to “enshroud and anchor the entire quadrangular compound.” These “back quarters” — “Number 7” in the cold military parlance of post-liberation Beijing in this tale — housed females. They were private and not easily accessible to men, even those of noble lineage, residing within the compound.

Herself a member of a Manchu family related to the infamous Empress Dowager Cixi, Ye Guangqin peppers this semi-autobiographical story with references to Manchu culture: the mysterious Zhen Gege, whose title “gege” means princess in Manchu (格格); jangkulembi (撞客), a sudden and inauspicious encounter with a spirit that can engender illness or bad fortune; and of course, the traditional art of story-telling among the Manchu that expressed itself during the Qing Dynasty both orally and through literature (Manchu Novelists).

Ironically, the fascination of two children with Grandpa Zhao’s tall tales ends in tragedy when the Cultural Revolution arrives, and Red Guards target class enemies — including remnants of the Qing ruling class.

The full text of the extract below has been published in Spring 2014 Pathlight, a quarterly featuring Chinese literature in translation. The original short story is entitled 后罩楼 and was written by Ye Guangqin (叶广芩).

* * * * *

Back Quarters at Number 7

(Original by Ye Guangqin, translated by Bruce Humes)

 

Grandpa Zhao was a Manchu Bannerman in one of just three elite Banners – there were eight total – personally commanded by the Emperor.

He said one of his ancestors had served in the Emperor’s personal guard at the Hall of Mental Cultivation in the Forbidden City. This relative had seen His Imperial Majesty as He wrote by a window, and watched Him strolling along palace verandas, so he must have been one of His bodyguards. How else could he have witnessed these details in the life of the True Dragon Emperor? [Read more…]

“The Creation Story”: An Excerpt from “Canticle to the Land,” the Third Novel in Fan Wen’s Yunnan-Tibet Trilogy

The Story of Creation

Long, long ago

Sky and earth not yet distinct

Water and soil not yet formed

Darkness shrouding all.

No sun, ho! No moon,

Neither flower nor beast, ho!

And no love.

No Tashi Gyatso, Tibetan minstrel,

For his wings of passion had yet to unfurl.

— Tashi Gyatso’s Creation Ballad

大地雅歌The audience erupted in laughter in Chieftain Khampu Dzongsar’s spacious salon.“You sang that wrong,” uttered someone to Tashi Gyatso, the troubadour. “Those last two lines were added on by you!”

“Twang” sounded the string, dexterously plucked by the fellow in the middle of the salon who was fondling his zither and performing the Creation Ballad, like a savvy horseman lightly reining in an errant steed.  He affected a mischievous smile that evoked knowing chuckles.

Only one who enjoyed the chieftain’s good graces dared behave so nonchalantly at a gathering of nobility. [Read more…]

Çin Edebiyatından Kültür Devrimine Ergen Gözüyle Bakış: Wang Gang’ın İngilizce Romanı

Ayşe Ünal Ersönmez

(for English version, click here)

Çin edebiyatının son birkaç yılda hem kendi ülkesinde hem de dünyada en ilgi görmüş örneklerinden Wang Gang’ın İngilizce adlı romanı, 2013 yılında Kalkedon Yayınları tarafından Nil Demir çevirisiyle Türkçe’ye kazandırıldı.

Roman, Çin’in kuzeybatısındaki Sincan Uygur Özerk Bölgesinde yaşayan Çinli genç “Aşk Liu”nun delikanlılıkIngilizce dönemini konu alıyor. Aşk Liu’nun, her ergen gibi yetişkin dünyasını ve karşı cinsi anlamlandırma dertleriyle boğuştuğu yaşlarını sürerken ilave bir yükü daha var çünkü aynı dönemde Çin, yakın tarihindeki en sancılı süreçlerden 1965-1975 yılları arasında Mao önderliğinde yaşanan Kültür Devrimiyle boğuşmakta. Nitekim roman, bu politik arka planın, bireysel ve toplumsal yaşamın cinsellik dahil her alanına yedirilmesiyle, bildiğimiz ergenlik dönemi romanlarından farklılaşıyor.

İngilizce konuşulan ülkelerin okurları, Kültür Devrimi döneminin ele alındığı Çin edebiyatı eserlerine aşina olabilir ancak Türk okuru için bu roman gerçekten de yepyeni bir dünyanın kapısını aralıyor.

Bunun yanında, hem Başbakan Erdoğan’a yönelik eleştiriler anlamında hem de Atatürk dönemiyle hesaplaşma kapsamında şimdilerde Türkiye gündeminde pek bir havada uçuşan “diktatör” sözcüğünün yankısının bulunabileceği, bir başka ülkenin yakın geçmişine ait baskıcı bir liderlik örneğinin, kültüre ve yaşam tarzına yönelik dayatmaların veya moda deyimiyle “toplum mühendisliği”nin yansımalarının görülebileceği bir roman İngilizce.

Aşk Liu, her ikisi de mimar ve aydın kişiler olan anne ve babasıyla birlikte Uygur bölgesinin başkenti Urumçi’de yaşamakta ve ortaokula devam etmektedir. Ne var ki zamanın Urumçisi kent bile sayılamayacak durumdadır, üstelik Kültür Devriminin baskısı altında inim inim inlemektedir. Eğitim devam etmekte ancak niteliği yerlerde sürünmektedir. [Read more…]

“Champa the Driver”: Tibetan Dreamer in an Alien Land

Original Chinese novel:  《裸命》

English title:                     The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver

Author:                             Chan Koonchung (陈冠中)

Translator:                       Nicky Harman

Reviewer:                         Bruce Humes

 

 “Dreams are so good. Why do we have to make them a reality?

What’s a young Tibetan stud to do for a living nowadays in a tourist hotspot like Lhasa? And what happens when his childhood dream—to hang out in the capital of a country called China—comes true?

In the just-published Champa the Driver, author Chan Koonchung takes us on a rocky road from Lhasa to Beijing. The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the DriverAlong the way he paints disturbing vignettes. An apartheid-in-the-making. The eerie death wish of a would-be self-immolator. The Kafkaesque “black jails” where provincial petitioners who dare air their grievances to the Beijing Mandarins are brutalized, then sent home.

If they’re lucky, that is.

I read both the Chinese original and Nicky Harman’s translation, and her rendition convincingly captures Champa’s conflicted mindset and odd lingo; after all, like any young PRC citizen he is the product of 21st-century China’s booming economy and rampant materialism. But he is also not a native speaker of Chinese, and deep down, he is more Tibetan and Buddhist than he realizes. Even as Chan evokes the gap between image and reality, between the tourist’s Lhasa and Tibet under the heel of the dragon, and Beijing as it is dreamt vs. lived, the novel remains a quick and compelling read.

At the outset, Champa is sitting pretty. He’s got a cushy job in Lhasa as a chauffeur for Plum, a savvy Han businesswoman with a robust appetite for the occasional “spurt of the moment” (as Champa puts it), and before he knows it, he’s her lover-on-demand. However the simple days of cock-and-cunt—there’s a hefty dose of raw sex as the novel opens—are soon overshadowed by the troubling loss of his Tibetan virility. After an-all-too-short trip to Beijing, he realizes that she doesn’t want to be seen parading her “Tibetan Mastiff puppy” in the capital.

This is a body blow to his self-image, and impacts their relations back home in Lhasa. “Plum just didn’t get my tantric juices flowing” any more, he admits. To do his night gig with the boss now, he has to spend his daytime headhunting a fresh new sex object—in a whorehouse, online, among tourists, whatever—that he can visualize while servicing Plum. [Read more…]

Wang Gang’s “Ingilizce” : Intriguing look at the Cultural Revolution for Turkish Readers

IngilizceAs China’s fiction “exports” pick up, it will be interesting to watch which novels and themes win an Exit Permit to foreign lands, and how they are received there.

Take Wang Gang’s 《英格力士》, for instance.  This semi-autobiographical novel set in Xinjiang during the Cultural Revolution was snapped up by Penguin, and rendered in English by Martin Merz and Jane Weizhen Pan as . . . English.  See my Growing up Han in Fictional Xinjiang for a combined book review and interview with the translators. The novel has since also appeared in French (English) and Spanish (El profesor de inglés) .

I assume the purchase and publication of Wang Gang’s work was a market-driven decision by Penguin. But late last year, his novel was launched in Turkish at the Istanbul Book Fair. The driver in that instance may have been somewhat more political. It was one of just two Chinese novels that were translated into Turkish and published in time for the fair thanks to a joint project subsidized by Turkey and China. The other was a relatively unknown work by Tie Ning (How long is forever?), who happens to be favorably placed; she’s top honcho at the state-run China Writers Association.

Given that only a handful of contemporary Chinese novels have appeared in Turkish, I can’t help but ponder the symbolism of choosing a Xinjiang-born Han author’s novel as an introduction to 21st-century Chinese literature. The novel is set in Xinjiang, the home of some ten million Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking, traditionally Muslim people who have ancient ties with the Turkish. But the novel itself focuses almost exclusively on the Han community there; there are no Uyghur male characters in it.

Irony of ironies, Wang Gang’s novel was translated from the English-language English, not his Chinese original. The first casualty may have been the book’s title in Turkish that couldn’t be much more mundane: Ingilizce, the proper Turkish term for the English language. The original novel  was entitled 英格力士, however, which is closer to a phonetic transcription of the word as you would find it in a dictionary, e.g., “ing-glish”, a more notable title that positions the word as alien to the speaker.  As you can see from the Spanish and French titles above, Ingilizce is a more orthodox translation from the, uh, English.

At any rate, keen to see how a novel about the Cultural Revolution would be rendered in Turkish, I commissioned an English-to-Turkish literary translator here in Istanbul to review the Turkish book as well as comment on how it compares with the English rendition. The review—in English—follows below. Here’s her Turkish review Çin Edebiyatından Kültür Devrimine Ergen Gözüyle Bakış: Wang Gang’ın İngilizce Romanı . [Read more…]

Author’s Afterword: “Last Quarter of the Moon”

 Afterword:

From the Mountains

 to the Sea

 

Birch trees in Greater Khingan MountainsThe birth of a literary work resembles the growth of a tree. It requires favorable circumstances.

Firstly, there must be a seed, the Mother of All Things. Secondly, it cannot lack for soil, nor can it make do without the sunlight’s warmth, the rain’s moisture or the wind’s caress.

In the case of The Last Quarter of the Moon, however, first there was soil, and only then was there a seed. For this land that turns muddy as the ice thaws in the spring, shaded by green trees in the summer and covered by motley leaves in the autumn and endless snow-white in the winter, is very familiar to me.

After all, I was born and raised on this land.  As a child entering the mountains to fetch firewood, more than once I discovered an odd head-shape on a thick tree trunk.  Father told me that was the image of the Mountain Spirit Bainacha, carved by the Oroqen.

I knew the Oroqen were an ethnic minority who lived on the outskirts of our mountain town. They resided in their open-top cuoluozi (teepees) where they could spy the stars at night.  In the summer they fished in their birch-bark canoes, and in the winter they hunted in the mountains wearing their parka and roe-deerskin boots. They liked to go horse riding, drink liquor and sing songs. In that vast and frigid land, their small tribe was like a pristine spring trickling deep in the mountains. Full of vitality, yet solitary.

I once believed that the masses of forestry workers, those loggers, were the genuine masters of the land, while the Oroqen in their animal hides were aliens from another galaxy.  Only later did I learn that before the Han came to the Greater Khingan Range, the Oroqen had long lived and multiplied on that frozen land.

Dubbed the “green treasure house,” the forest grew thick and animals abounded before it was exploited. There were very few roads and no railroad. Most paths in the wooded mountains were trodden by the nomadic hunting peoples, the Oroqen and the Evenki.

After large-scale exploitation of the forest began in the sixties, bevies of loggers were stationed in the forest and one road after another—for timber transport—appeared, along with railroad tracks.  Whizzing along those roads and tracks each day were trucks and trains laden with logs bound for destinations beyond the mountains. The sound of trees falling displaced birdcalls, and chimney smoke displaced clouds.

In reality, the exploitation of nature is not wrong; when God left man to fend for himself in the mortal world, wasn’t it to force him to find the answer to survival within Nature? The problem is, God wished us to seek a harmonious form of survival, not a rapacious, destructive one.

One, two, three decades passed, and the sound of tree felling quieted but didn’t cease. Continuous exploitation and certain irresponsible, reckless actions made the virgin forest begin to display signs of aging and decline. Like an apparition, dust storms suddenly appeared at the dawn of the new century.  At last, the sparse tree coverage and decimated animal population alerted us: we have exacted too much from Mother Nature! [Read more…]

Chinese Fiction in Translation: Novels/Novellas with “Ethnic” Theme

Over the last few months a number of reporters have e-mailed to ask about the state of Chinese literature in translation, particularly in light of Mo Yan’s winning the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature. But most cite just a handful of authors and works in their questions— and Shanghai Baby, translated by yours truly over a decade ago!—is often one of them.

My advice to them is simple: do your homework, please! For starters, check out Paper-Republic.  All sorts of goodies over there, including a list of translated Chinese fiction (and poetry) published in 2012, Chinese fiction published in 2013, and a Translator Directory too.

Here at Altaic Storytelling, we focus on writing by & about non-Han peoples, particularly those which speak an Altaic language, but not exclusively. And it is interesting to note that translated fiction with an “ethnic” twist has been building up steam for a while, pre-dating the Mo Yan craze, in fact.

To my mind, the impetus for the increased profile of Chinese literature in the outside world began when China was named “Guest of Honor” at the 2009 Frankfurt Int’l Book Fair. Chinese authors and publishers socialized with their European counterparts—many for the first time—and important contacts and contracts resulted, with the books born of this schmoozing finally hitting the market 2-3 years later.

In China is Focusing on the Fringes published in March this year, literary translator Nicky Harman presciently pointed out that “independent–minded Chinese writers are becoming seriously interested in the geographical fringes of ‘China proper’, drawing on its people, their traditions and conflicts at work.” And as you can see below, foreign publishers are interested. When you consider that over the last few years just 15 or so Chinese novels have appeared in English each year—ethnic or no—this table looks a bit more impressive.

Indeed. So, to show this more graphically—and perhaps even to save myself a bit of hassle in recreating the wheel for the next journalist who wants to pick my brains—I’ve put together this table. If you know something I should add to it, including current projects that will be published in 2014, please let me know! [Read more…]

“The Shepherd’s Dream”: An Excerpt from Alai’s “King Gesar”

Several years ago, UK publisher Canongate commissioned contemporary ethnic Tibetan writer Alai to pen his own creative version of the King Gesar saga. The plan: to launch Alai’s King Gesar (格萨尔王, 阿来著)  as part of its global Myth Series, joining other creatively re-told tales including The Penelopiad (Margaret Atwood’s take on Penelope of The Odyssey), Baba Yaga Laid an Egg (Baba Yaga as per Dubravka Ugresic), and Binu and the Great Wall (by China’s Su Tong).

The traditional Epic of King Gesar (Tibetan: གེ་སར་རྒྱལ་པོ), believed to date from the 12th century, relates the heroic deeds of Gesar, the fearless lord of the legendary Kingdom of Ling. It is recorded variously in poetry and prose, and is performed widely throughout Central Asia. According to Wikipedia, besides versions of the tale conserved by PRC-based minorities such as the Bai, Naxi, the Pumi, Lisu and Yugur peoples, other variations are also found among the Burushaski-speaking Burusho of Hunza and Gilgit, the Kalmyk and Ladakhi peoples, in Baltistan, in Sikkim, Bhutan, Nepal, and among various Tibeto-Burmese, Turkish, and Tunghus tribes. The first printed version was a Mongolian text published in Beijing in 1716.

When I wrote Canongate in 2010, they told me December 2012 was the likely publication date of Alai’s work in English. Now August 2013 is apparently the new target date. Why the delay? I don’t know the inside story. But perhaps it’s because they eventually recruited the hottest duo in the world of Chinese-to-English literary translation—Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Lin—to render King Gesar in English.  It’s public knowledge that Goldblatt and Lin are the first choice of many publishers, and they are so busy that each new Chinese novel they translate has to (patiently) wait its turn. . .

Happily, asymptotejournal.com has now published an excerpt from Song of Gesar entitled The Shephard’s Dream:

‘My dear nephew, with so many people around, sometimes the gods simply cannot take care of us all, and that is why you feel out of sorts. When that happens, think about this syllable.”I don’t know how to carve.’

‘Then treat your heart as the best pear wood and imagine yourself holding a knife carving out this syllable one letter at a time. As long as you think about it and say it, gradually there will be only this syllable flickering in your consciousness, and that will bring you tranquility.’

On his way home, he said to the donkey, ‘I’m thinking about that syllable.’

The syllable was pronounced Om. When that sound is made, everything that turns, water wheels, windmills, spinning wheels and prayer wheels, begins to spin. And when everything is spinning, the world turns.

The donkey did not understand, but ambled along with its head lowered and its eyes cast downward. The road made a sharp turn by a sparse grove of pine trees. Swaying its narrow hips, the donkey disappeared momentarily from his view as it made the turn. So he raised his voice and spoke to two parrots perched on a wild cherry tree: ‘Think about the syllable.’

Startled, the birds fluttered up, clamouring, ‘Syllable! Syllable! Syllable!’ and flew away.

He quickened his steps and found his donkey waiting for him by the side of the road. It gave him a dispassionate look before setting off again, the bell on its neck jingling as it plodded ahead.

For a long time after that, Jigme spoke to all manner of living things that appeared along the way, telling them, in a half serious, half bantering manner, of how he was focusing on that syllable – serious because he hoped it would help him return to his dream world and not forget it upon waking, and bantering because he could not bring himself to believe in it. Mocking it helped him prepare for the inevitable disappointment. But deep down he hoped it would work magic.

Click here to read the full excerpt.

See also a book review of Alai’s Song of Gesar [full book published in 2014], and a marvelous look at how Tibetan epic singers come into being,  Bab Sgrung: Tibetan Epic Singers.

Chutzpah!: Latest Issue Devoted to Writers of non-Han Descent

Good news from the bimonthly Chinese literary magazine Chutzpah! (天南): the latest edition (Issue 14) is devoted entirely to writing by authors of non-Han descent. Several languages are involved here—most are published in Chinese, but some were written in other tongues and then translated into Chinese, while one has been rendered in English.

The latter deserves a special mention because . . . I translated it. It’s a marvelous short story by Uyghur writer Alat Asem (阿拉提·阿斯木), entitled Sidik Golden MobOff (《斯迪克金子关机》). If you want to read it in full, you’ll have to purchase the magazine in hard copy form, but here’s an excerpt. But for more information on the author, see China’s Bilingual Writers: Narrative with a Difference.  And if you can read Chinese, check out this very informative interview with the author, 地域化、全球化和双语写作. [Read more…]